Fever-Dream Protest in Bilbao: An Exploration of The Emperor

It is April in Bilbao, 2006. Our train pulls into a deserted station; it is 5:45 AM and the city sleeps. Using a Frommer’s map and our limited knowledge of Spanish, we find our way to the city’s welcome center, but it has yet to open. In the meantime, we rest our bodies on benches in a park across the street and feed pigeons crumbs of an old baguette that someone had stowed in their bag. There are three of us–Gwen, Rachel, and I. One of us has betrayed another. Another of us has betrayed that same other with her silence. But the trip had been planned months in advance, so we weakly mended our fences and set off.

As the sun climbed higher in the sky, it became surprisingly warm. We shed layers of clothing and crammed them into overstuffed bags. After the center failed to open at the time advertised, we set off on our own to find food and lodgings. Turns out, very few people speak English in Bilbao. I was an American who chose to study French, and my English and Kiwi companions simply didn’t have the Spanish-speaking population we do in the states. We were at a loss. Unable to communicate with the hostel workers, we didn’t know which had vacancies or not. “Lo siento” was muttered time after time. The possibility of spending the night on the street increased with each bumbled interaction.

Finally, we found someone who knew just enough English (or whose pronunciation was decipherable, I can’t remember which) that we were able to secure a room. It was more than we could afford, but at that point, we didn’t really care. As my travel companions took turns showering, dressing, and preparing themselves to find some food, I felt my body begin to shiver and sweat break out across my brow. I’d contracted strep throat (“glandular fever” to my compatriots) the week before we left, but antibiotics were keeping it pretty much at bay. But here they weren’t crammed in with the rest of my musty belongings. I knew that I’d left them in Barcelona, and that the fever was coming back. “I think I’ll hang back,” I said when they asked why I wasn’t getting ready. “I’m not feeling very well.” They shrugged and left, and I was in the middle of a strange room in a strange city with nothing but Blue Lagoon dubbed in Spanish to keep me company.

I fell into a hazy delirium. I flashed back to the moment Rachel said, “We care about each other. We have for some time.” I relived my calm request for her to leave my room and the sixty-second period of time it took for me to become a raging open wound. I relived marching down to James’ room, opening the door and slapping him, and his strangely infuriating response: “I deserved that.” As if he expected it. As if he knew how much it would hurt me, but simply didn’t care.

A patriotic march woke me from my revery. I had to concentrate to make sure I wasn’t imagining it, and once I was sure that it was real, I followed it to the window. There were throngs of people marching through the streets rather quietly. I saw a speaker set up by the door of the hostel; it blared the music, and no one appeared to be the least bit curious as to what was going on.

My sick-addled mind told my feet to walk outside. The fever had inspired aching throughout my body but also a strange euphoria, so I didn’t mind the pain. As if possessed, I began marching with them. Multiple speakers lined the streets to accompany the strange procession. Men with AK-47’s also  lined the streets–it was the first, but not the last time that I saw law enforcement carrying semi-automatic weapons. If I’d been well, I’m sure the sight would have been enough to cause me to abandon my quest, but I wasn’t well and things didn’t seem real enough, so I kept going. We finally stopped at a podium erected in a square, and a well-dressed man with salt and pepper hair in his fifties began speaking in Catalan. I listen to the gorgeous rhythm of the language and gazed at the faces around me. I felt as if I was one of a dozen characters in a Garcia Marquez novel–my life, at that moment, was magical realism. And then, the climax–the man began to deliver the same speech in French. For the first time that day, I could understand what someone who lived here was saying. This language was a bridge, a compromise; we were not fluent, but through it, we could understand one another.

He spoke of freedom. Liberation. The need to secede from a nation that didn’t have the best interests of the Basque country at heart. He said that the politics of Spain did not represent them, and that he didn’t see a time where they ever would. I began crying despite myself. Here I was in a foreign country listening to a man whose identity was hidden to me speaking a language that wasn’t my own and I felt completely and utterly understood. I bathed in the healing words of his speech and let my pride and confidence rise to the surface again. I told Rachel that I’d forgiven her because that’s what she needed to be absolved. But the truth was, I hadn’t forgiven her and I hadn’t forgiven James either. And that was okay. I needed to take time to process. I needed to allow myself to feel the anger, the pain, and the sadness. And I needed to release myself from feeling responsible for the feelings of those who had hurt me. I needed to liberate myself from the idea that I had to relieve them of their guilt at the expense of my own emotional reaction.

My fever broke in the middle of the rally. Suddenly, I saw myself supporting a resistance I had no part of and surrounded by a league of men with assault rifles. I left as calmly and peacefully as I’d come, and no one tried to stop me or give me trouble. After losing myself in the streets of Bilbao for awhile, I made my way back to the hostel. Rachel and Gwen hadn’t yet returned, and Blue Lagoon still played on the television. I crawled beneath my thin blanket and closed my eyes. When they came back, I pretended to be asleep. But in truth, I was very much awake.

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